Britney Spears started a nearly 100-date, two-year residency at Las Vegas' Planet Hollywood last night in front of a capacity 4,600-person crowd at the hotel's Axis theater. The show strove to take advantage of the pageantry of a traditional Vegas experience – lavish costumes, elaborate sets, water effects – while leveraging the star power of one of the biggest names in pop music. The approximately 90-minute performance featured a strong corps of backup dancers, a four-piece live band pounding out classic and grimier, darker versions of Spears' hits and Britney in a variety of sparkly and skin-baring outfits strutting across the stage (and on a handful of occasions, flying high above it). She sang the ballad "Everytime" dressed as an angel, floating above the crowd; she emerged for "Toxic" from a high branch of a massive, gnarled tree.
Viewed through a lens of diminished expectations (Britney's bar for success was reset in 2007 after her well-publicized breakdown), Britney: Piece of Me is an entertaining tour through the 32-year-old star's nearly 15-year recording career. Compared to pop spectacles staged by Madonna and Beyoncé (and even Katy Perry, who was in attendance for Spears' opening night along with Miley Cyrus), however, the weaknesses that remain in Spears' live act are stark.
While the show's producers claim Spears is singing along with backing tracks of her own voice, there was little evidence Britney sang a note live. Her banter with the audience ranged from canned ("What's up, Vegas? I can't hear you!") to baffling in light of her very public struggles with substance abuse ("I feel high!" she proclaimed before the final song). Her dancing, touted as the show's linchpin, was often lackadaisical and – as has become the norm for Spears – reliant on arm movements. Still, the show featured flashes of greatness; here's a breakdown of the five most transcendent moments (and the five that were true bummers):
5 Best Moments:
1. "Work Bitch"
Britney started the set strong, emerging from a metal cage suspended in the air to the pulsing sounds of her Britney Jean lead single. Spears stomped around the stage with authority and nailed her choreography, setting a hopeful tone for the night.
2. "Do Somethin'"
Spears seemed energized by the tempo of this 2004 Greatest Hits: My Prerogative single, dancing with (and on) chairs, which recalled her classic "Stronger" video. By the end of the song, she'd confidently climbed a pyramid of them.
3. "Stronger" into "(You Drive Me) Crazy"
Spears' band gave both of these early singles goth makeovers, turning them into darkly pounding anthems.
Britney played it safe for "Circus," replicating the look and choreography from the song's video. But the conceit – Spears singing in a ring of fire, then circled by her dancers channeling the spirit of an old-time big top – suited the pageantry of Vegas perfectly.
5. "Till the World Ends"
Perhaps she was relieved to have made it through the show relatively unscathed, but Spears looked genuinely thrilled to be jumping up and down to this Femme Fatale standout at the end of the show, prancing up the catwalk. She exited back into her flying cage to a slick remix of the song melded with "Work Bitch."
5 Saddest Moments:
1. "I'm a Slave 4 U"
Between this song's sweaty, super-sexy video and Spears' iconic performance at the 2001 VMAs, fans expect a slithery, dramatic "Slave" live. Spears seemed truly frightened to take on this number, remaining safely on a throne, executing minimal choreography while her dancers did the heavy lifting.
2. "Me Against the Music"
The set mimicked the wooden cages Britney and Madonna danced through in the song's exceptional video, which was a mistake – Spears performed a much simpler set of steps far less precisely, and Madonna's vocals were completely absent from the song, leaving a giant, noticeable hole.
Spears took a seat in the center of the circus set for the Oops! ballad, and without the distraction of her dancers, we were left with little to focus on but the sad irony of the lyrics themselves – which describe a girl who seemingly has it all and is profoundly sad and lonely – and how they relate to the singer's own life.
The Piece of Me set list claims to be 20 tracks long, but many songs – including this beloved 2001 groover – were heard for 15 seconds or less, blended and mixed into other songs as filler while Spears set up for her next choreography number.
Spears plucked a seemingly random man from the audience and her dancers outfitted him in bondage gear and forced him to crawl down the catwalk on a leash. The problem? The gimmick, which starred Mario Lopez opening night, came off stunningly sex-less and unprovocative, considering the premise. (And Madonna did it much better as the opening number of her Confessions tour.)
Full Set List:
". . .Baby One More Time"
"Oops!. . .I Did It Again!"
"Me Against the Music"
"Break the Ice"
"Piece of Me"
"Scream & Shout"
"Get Naked (I Got a Plan)"
"I'm a Slave 4 U"
"I Wanna Go"
"Till the World Ends"